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Casa Mono: From Spain, with Sherry

Welcome to Eater's column, Decanted, in which WineChap's Talia Baiocchi guides us through the treacherous world of New York wine lists. Today: Casa Mono.

2010_07_casa-monoSince opening in 2003, Casa Mono has been the default beacon for high-end tapas and Spanish wine. It was one of the first all-Spanish wine lists in New York and still remains the city’s most extensive. In the seven years that have passed, however, the Spanish wine industry has changed drastically: quality has improved across the entire country, new regions are producing terroir-specific wines, and a natural wine movement is afoot. Still, here in the U.S., Spanish wine is similar to what Italian wine was several decades ago: not much more than a smattering of regional wines—many of which are stigmatized for their history of bulk production—plus a handful of high, high-end wines from recognizable regions (Priorat, Ribera del Duero) that tend to monopolize the wine press. And of course, there’s Rioja: a region with a presence, albeit grossly under appreciated. Hence, Spain isn’t exactly a country whose wines are on top of the world, but with the rise of new, ardent importers (José Pastor being the leading revolutionary among them) and their wines, Casa Mono will have to keep pace in order to remain on top.

The job of keeping this list relevant falls on Wine Director Ashley Santoro, a spirited lover of all things Spanish and a woman who is to sherry what Paul Greico is to Riesling—i.e. evangelical, just without the weird goatee. Her expanded sherry list demonstrates her tireless effort to prove that sherry is much more than fortified caramel for the geriatric, but in recent visits it’s become apparent that she’s begun to set her sights on the list’s lower end as well, focusing on the regions that are just now garnering serious interest—Galicia, the Canary Islands, and the Levant. Although there is so much we’d like to see that isn’t here (more from Ribeira Sacra and Navarra, for example), it is clear that a bunch of the bulk from days gone by must move before this happens. As it stands, the collection is still leading the pack.

If there is any worthy gripe with the list, it’s with its organization. For a drinker who doesn’t have an extensive knowledge of Spanish wine, it would prove to be incredibly difficult to navigate. It’s organized by region, and the wines are simply listed by name without any mention of the grape varietal. (Really, how many people know what they’re getting from Bullas, Valencia, Manchuela, etc?) At the very least, a list of varieties for each wine and perhaps a brief overview of the region and its significance would make for a less anxious, more educational read. For the time being, however, we hail Santoro, and damn you if you leave here without drinking a glass of sherry.

Bang For Your Buck
Sierras de Málaga Moscatel Seco 2009, Botani $48
Jorge Ordoñez is a giant in the world of sweet wine (which accounts for this area’s primary production), but here he takes Moscatel (also known as Muscat in France and Moscato in Italy) to dryness, creating a delightfully aromatic, salinic jewel for Málaga’s coastal crown.

Clar de Castanyer 2007, Vega de Ribes $56
Spain’s Penedès region, located just north of Barcelona, may be best known for its sparkling wine (Cava), but it also produces some freaky still whites from the area’s indigenous varietals (Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada). This wine is sourced from 50-year-old Xarel-lo vines that are open top fermented in large chestnut casks, resulting in gloriously distinctive, slightly oxidized, mineral-driven stuff.

Albariño 2009, Pedralonga $61
The Rías Baixas region in the Southern half of Galicia (Northwestern corner), is home to the famed Albariño grape and its eponymous wines. Pedralonga is one of the most exciting producers to emerge in the past few years, raising the bar for this varietal. This wine spends 18 months on the lees, giving it enough richness to counter the grape’s natural acidity. This is a sincere balance of texture and precision that, to quote Jon Bonné in his recent article on Spain’s cutting edge, “could kick the living crud out of a Sancerre.”

Lanzarote Rosado 2008, Bermejo $60
This is one of those wines that sticks with you for weeks or even months. 100% Listán Negro from the Canary Islands sourced from crater-like holes in volcanic soil (each vine has its own with a stone wall around it to protect the plants from wind) makes for a serious balls to the wall display of terroir that’s like inhaling volcanic dust in la-la land. This wine alone is worth a trip to the bar.

Priorat ‘Mas Negre’ 2006, Vinos de Terruños $60
Priorat done Old School under the direction of one of the great ambassadors of terroir-driven Spanish wine, importer José Pastor. This blend of Samsó (the local name for Carignan) and Garnacha (Grenache) aged in old barrels trades in the usual density and brawn of the Priorat wines for higher acidity and less extraction.

Rioja Reserva ‘Señorío de P. Peciña’ 2000, Hermanos Peciña $66
Founded in 1992, this new estate—especially by Rioja standards—has a penchant for the old. The former vineyard manager at La Rioja Alta (one of the region’s great traditional producers) is at the helm here, and it’s clear these wines have some experience behind them. Tastes of fresh red fruit, hippies, and a dirt road (i.e. exactly what 10-year-old Rioja should taste like).

Amontillado (Montilla-Morales) ‘Carlos VII’ NV, Alvear $47 (500ml)
Perhaps the finest “sherry” value on the list, though not technically considered one as this dry Amontillado is sourced from an area just north of Jerez called Montilla-Morales. Concentrated, but lithe and refreshing, and dangerous at 500ml and 19% alcohol.

Off The Beaten Path
Diego 2008, Bermejo $57
Another wine from this excellent estate in the Canary Islands. Same vine training—i.e. each with its own volcanic dugout—but instead of Listán Negro, we have this bastardized little grape called Diego. Very few producers are working with this guy, and this is the only one we’ve come across. Mineral-driven, briny, and a solid match with seafaring animals.

Alicante ‘Raspay’ 2003, Primitivo Quiles $48
Classic Alicante: sourced from low-yielding Monastrell (Mourvèdre in French) vines and vinified in old oak barrels for a prolonged period of time. This is intense and slightly oxidized nerd juice.

Crowd Pleaser
Rueda Blanco ‘Pie Franco’ 2008, Blanco Nieva $47
An excellent expression of the Verdejo grape from the premiere white wine making region of Rueda. Grapes sourced from 100+ year-old pre-phylloxera vines at a high elevation create plenty of high-toned acidity, minerality, and compatible fruit.

El Chaparral 2008, Vega Sindoa $36
Old vines bottling sourced from Garnacha that’s been planted closer to the ocean than any other place in Spain. Tons of depth and power in this price point, and all of the forward fruit and bracing acidity that any group of diners could wish for.

Under $40
Quíbia Blanco 2008, Ànima Negra $36
Sourced from the island of Mallorca, this blend of the native Callet and Premsal varietals is fermented and aged under the lees in stainless steel for several months. Distinct aromatics of tennis ball and earth.

Ribeira Sacra ‘Amandi’ 2009, Guimaro (Pedro M. Rodriguez Pérez) $36
Marked by steeply terraced vineyards (some carved into the hillsides by the Romans over 2,000 years ago), Ribeira Sacra is one of the coolest up and coming regions in Spain. And its wines—specifically the reds, like this one, made from 100% Mencía—are no different: rustic, obscure, and made in teensy quantities.

Break The Bank
Lapena 2003, Dominio do Bibei $108
Hailing from the Quiroga-Bibei sub zone of the Ribeira Sacra D.O., Dominio do Bibei is making some of the most ambitious wines in the region. Simplicity rules here: there are no stainless tanks for fermentation, only cement and wood barrels. This particular wine, 100% old vines Mencía from steeply terraced vineyards, is brawny, but still gorgeously aromatic and properly acidic.

Rioja Viña Real Gran Reserva 1981, CVNE $295
A chance to have some great traditional Rioja that isn’t quite as rustic the Lopez wines. Plenty of polished fruit here to buffer the funk. Drinking at its peak showing uncanny freshness and layers of Bohemian funk and flowers.

Fondillon 1948, Primitivo Quiles $130
A sweet wine made in the traditional Alicante style, often referred to as the “Lost Wine of Alicante” because only a few producers still vinify wine in this style once a favorite of Shakespeare and Louis XIV. The Solera Method (here with the oldest barrel dating back to 1948) is employed to age red Monastrell that has not been fermented to dryness. Awesome, singular and also by the glass at $22—worth the splurge.

Bierzo ‘Corullon Las Lamas’ 2007, Descendientes de J. Palacios $232
While the Bierzo wines from Palacios—arguably the region’s vanguard—can be some of the most stunning you’ll stumble across, they are stiff arms and blunt elbows in their youth. It’s a crime to open this wine before 2015. Throw away the key.

WineChap is a start up that seeks to foster more intelligent boozing by demystifying the culture that surrounds restaurant wine lists. Currently the site boasts more than 160 wine list reviews in New York City.

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Casa Mono

52 Irving Place, Manhattan, NY 10003 (212) 253-2773 Visit Website

Casa Mono

125 East 17th St., New York, NY